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5 major disputes surrounding state textbooks

 Last Friday, Choi Mong-lyong -- the government’s choice as one of the main authors for a new set of state-issued history textbooks -- resigned after allegations surfaced that he had sexual harassed a female reporter.

While denying any wrongdoing, the professor emeritus of Seoul National University said he did not want to bog down the publication process.

Professor Choi Mong-lyong is surrounded by the press as he heads to his home in Yeouido, Friday. (Yonhap)
Professor Choi Mong-lyong is surrounded by the press as he heads to his home in Yeouido, Friday. (Yonhap)

The resignation of the seasoned scholar added to controversy swirling around the Park Geun-hye administration’s mission to establish a “correct” history lesson, which it vows to accomplish by retrieving school textbook rights from the private sector.

The path toward government-controlled history lessons is still lined with obstacles, as polls indicate an increasing number of citizens opposing the need for the state textbooks. Gallup Korea said Friday that 36 percent of Korean adults supported the policy while 53 opposed it, versus 36 and 49 percent, respectively, last week.

Here are five major points of dispute over the history textbooks.

Supposed involvement of Cheong Wa Dae

Although it was a sexual harassment scandal that ultimately brought down Choi, the 69-year-old had already been embroiled in controversy after a media interview in which he indicated the presidential office pressured him to support the contentious policy.

He said Wednesday that Hyun Jung-taik, senior presidential secretary for policy coordination, called him to request that he attend Wednesday’s press conference by the National Institute of Korean History, where the state-run body named him as one of the authors. Choi added that he was a “shield” for the NIKH on the state textbook issue, and that the institute should thank him.

Choi denied Thursday that the phone call had happened, then flip-flopped again later in the day to say he did receive a phone call but claimed that it was merely a conversation between old friends.

Cheong Wa Dae did not officially comment on Choi’s remarks.

Despite Choi’s efforts, the news fueled a fierce reaction from the main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy who said that Cheong Wa Dae had been pulling the strings on the policy despite its insistence that the Education Ministry was in the driver’s seat.

Last month, it alleged that the ministry had formed a secret textbook team off the books on direct orders from the presidential office. The government acknowledges the team’s existence, but denied it had any illegal nature.

Transparency of the publication process

During Wednesday’s press conference, the NIKH said that Choi and Shin Hyong-shik -- a professor emeritus of Ewha Womans University who specializes in ancient Korean history -- would be participating as two of six main authors of the textbook, and that some 36 writers would author the book.

But the conference lacked details despite Education Minister Hwang Woo-yea’s pledge the day before that “all processes will be transparent.”

NIKH chief Kim Jung-bae said the authors “should be allowed to feel relaxed (while working), at least until the copies are finished,” indicating that the NIKH may withhold the authors’ identities until they finish writing the books. 

National Institute of Korean History president Kim Jung-bae (right) reacts to a question during a press conference on the government’s plans for its history textbook publication at the government complex in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
National Institute of Korean History president Kim Jung-bae (right) reacts to a question during a press conference on the government’s plans for its history textbook publication at the government complex in Seoul on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

The NIKH limited the number of questions from the local media for Kim to five and was seen attempting to stop Shin from answering a question directed at him.

Hwang has so far pledged to unveil sections of the textbook online for public feedback while the book is being written.

The NPAD has criticized the government for running “secretive operations.”

But proponents of the state textbooks say that it should be the officials’ priority to ensure the authors’ safety, as they can be subject to public criticism for their participation.

Upon news of Choi’s appointment as an author, malicious online rumors targeting him circulated on social media.

Hwang vowed to respect the authors’ wishes to remain anonymous.

Maintaining unbiased content

The state-authored textbooks will strive to narrate a history that is not biased in favor of any side, the government has said. Their goal was further elaborated by their open criticism against the current books, which they claim favor leftist views.

“We can no longer teach our precious children with distorted and biased textbooks,” Hwang said in Tuesday’s press conference.

The conservatives have pointed to some textbooks’ descriptions that they say make it seem as if South and North Koreas share responsibility for the 1950-53 Korean War, citing parts that describe frequent border skirmishes that occurred in the buildup to the war.

Hwang added that the textbooks say that the South Korean “government” was established and the North Korean “country” was founded in 1948, which students could perceive as meaning the North is superior.

He pointed out that the majority of scholars with textbook writing experience repeatedly participate as authors, saying the homogenous pool makes state-issued textbooks inevitable.

The ministry has said the current system has failed to work as the authors have challenged government requests to revise the content.

Opponents of the state textbooks say that such claims are exaggerated.

Rep. Do Jong-hwan of the NPAD rebuked Hwang’s argument regarding the Korean War, saying that current textbooks make it clear that the North invaded the South.

He said that while individual authors carry out legal actions in cases of conflict, the publishers have revised the content as per government orders.

With regard to the description of the South Korean “government” being established in 1948, Do said it was because the Constitution states that the current government succeeds the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea established in 1919, which is not the case in North Korea.

Aug. 15, 1948, the day when South Korea’s first formal government was founded, is also at the center of a history textbook debate. All high school history textbooks say that the South Korean government, not South Korea, was established that day.

The dispute stems from calls by conservative “New Right” scholars to set the date as “Korea Foundation Day.” It rose to the surface during the former Lee Myung-bak administration, but faced fierce opposition from organizations related to Korea’s independence movement that it denies legitimacy of the provisional government.

The state-authored history textbooks of the 1980s and 1990s also specify that the government was established on that day. While the government-issued curriculum guidelines also say the “government” was established, the 2015 guidelines for the state history textbook have been changed to say that the course will deal with how “South Korea” was established. 

Progressive civic groups, historians and teachers opposing the policy say that the change aims to whitewash aspects of controversial political figures including Park Chung-hee, a former president of Korea and the incumbent leader’s father, who is criticized for his dictatorial rule in 1960s and 1970s.

They say that establishing 1948 as the year of the country’s foundation will respectively reduce the descriptions of the independence movement during the Japanese colonial period and instead depict pro-Japanese figures as those that helped found the country.

Rushed schedule 

The NIKH’s timeline gives roughly 14 months to complete the state textbook -- two of which will be spent on setting a concrete plan, recruiting authors and testing the book in classrooms.

Yang Jung-hyun, a history professor at Pusan National University with experience of authoring a state-published textbook, pointed out that past publications took at least two or three years.

The NIKH has vowed to appoint “the very best” experts in each field as authors, but the incident with Choi left a dent in its recruitment process.

Rep. Jeong Jin-hoo of the minor Justice Party called it “an obvious result of an unprepared, rushed plan.” He pointed out that the Education Ministry revised the 2015 curriculum guidelines on Thursday, merely two months after confirming the curriculum in September.

The revision was to ensure that state textbooks are distributed to classrooms by 2017. 

Alternative textbooks

Fourteen progressive education chiefs across the country who protest state textbooks have vowed to work on developing alternate history textbooks for use.

Calling the government decision “regrettable,” Gangwon Education Superintendent Min Byung-hee said his office would develop education materials for students’ “balanced historical view of history.”

The Education Ministry is mulling legal action against such movements.

The Korean History Research Association, one of the nation’s biggest historical societies, said last week it would start discussing plans to author an alternate textbook.

Korean law does not allow schools to substitute state-approved textbooks, but education chiefs can create supplementary textbooks.

By Yoon Min-sik (